Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu deserves all kinds of acclaim for daring to tell a story about the death penalty through the eyes of one of its enactors — a prison warden, the kind of character that’s usually reduced to a one-dimensional villain on screen. And she also should get props for attracting high-caliber talent like Alfre Woodard and Wendell Pierce for only her second full-length feature. But despite those accomplishments, “Clemency” doesn’t quite resonate.
That’s mostly because “Clemency” doesn’t effectively investigate the conflict upon which its plot hinges. Warden Bernadine Williams (Woodard) is a woman who, by nature of her profession, follows the law unequivocally. She stoically gets up each morning, heads to her prison, and oversees the men on death row — from sifting through their mounds of paperwork to calling the time they take their last breaths in the electric chair. In her world, everything is routine, including going to sleep on the couch alone at night after having sex with her husband, Jonathan (Pierce). All of these are simply meaningless, habitual activities that fill her day.
It’s not until Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) is up next to be executed that something begins to unsettle Bernadine emotionally and spiritually. We don’t ever really know why that is, and Bernadine can’t (or won’t, it’s hard to tell which) articulate what brings on this shift. He’s presumably a prisoner like so many other others she’s sent to their deaths before; a man who profusely claims his innocence, whose lawyer (Richard Schiff) and family beg her for mercy.
We’re left to also assume that after witnessing 12 executions prior to Anthony’s number coming up, the job finally began to take its toll on Bernadine. But there is no sense of evolution from the disturbing opening scene, where she remains remarkably detached while a botched execution requires the officers to have to reboot the machine in order to finally kill the inmate, to the point where she’s drinking at the bar, questioning whether Anthony is guilty, and extending her relationship with him beyond the typical, “What do you want your last meal to be?”
Is it because she realizes she has become too entrenched with her job, as her husband claims? Or does her husband threatening to leave bring her to this internal conflict? Chukwu makes it clearer to the audience why we might be at odds with the normalization of the death penalty by showing us in grave detail the horror of the electric chair and carving a moving storyline for Anthony. (In turn, Hodge delivers his most heartrending performance to date.) Just days before his execution, he learns that he has a son, which gives him a sense of hope even when his usually confident lawyer begins to feel discouraged.
But the director’s emotional connection that is so apparent with Anthony is muddled when it comes to her protagonist. While it seems authentic that a woman like Bernadine would be reticent about expressing her presumed moral impasse due to the type of job she has and the fact that she’s a woman in a very masculine industry, Chukwu’s rather aloof screenplay doesn’t really allow her to grapple with any of that. As a result, the final scene — where Bernadine is overwhelmed with tears at her usual spot in the execution room — doesn’t have the impact that it should.
And Woodard’s performance is also hampered by it. It goes without saying that she is a tremendous actress who can exude so much emotion from even the coldest characters (just watch her in “12 Years a Slave,” for example), but she can’t draw from what isn’t there. Likewise, Pierce’s undeniable talent can’t uplift his stark Jonathan, who’s understandably frustrated by his wife’s distance but also doesn’t have compelling enough dialogue to interrogate truly what’s happening in their relationship.
“Clemency” is a film that is just almost great. The level of restraint Chukwu has in her writing and execution, while admirable, is the very thing that prevents it from truly soaring. Eric Branco’s cinematography is also perplexing, going from appropriately stark hallway shots alone with Bernadine to panning in so close to a refreshingly intimate scene between her and a priest (Michael O’Neill) that his head is cut out of the frame.
With just hints of brilliance in an otherwise lacking film, Chukwu tries to present a story that is ultimately about the human condition, but because she fails to pursue more deeply the ways in which Bernadine navigates her emotional space, the audience is removed from the character. The protests outside the prison declaring Anthony’s innocence, and the guard who can no longer handle the inside of the execution room, do a better job at illustrating the scope of the death penalty than contouring the character around which the film is supposed to be based. It makes “Clemency” almost completely inaccessible.